I can still just about remember my very first Sale Sharks game. I remember being stood, a shade under 7 years old, with my father at the terraced end of Heywood Road next to a group of zealous but good natured Northampton fans who spent my first 80 minutes of watching professional rugby intermittently signing "Oh When The Saints (Go Marching In)".
That, however is where my memories end. I don't remember the score (although the Sale archives tell me it finished 24-21 in Sale's favour), nor who played, scored or even what colour kits the teams wore.
So what's the relevance to Mark Cueto?
Mark Cueto's retirement following the conclusion of the 2014/15 season at age 35 represents, for me at least, something resembling the end of an era. For although I was not aware of it on that Friday night in August 2002, nor for many of my first years as a Sale season-ticket holder, too young or absent-minded to pay attention to exactly who was on the field, Mark Cueto, the Cumbrian winger who made his debut for Sale against Bristol in 2001 and was a Shark up until his final, 303rd appearance for the club last month in Exeter, had been one of the few ever-presents in my thirteen years following Sale Sharks rugby club.
Cueto, in a sense, embodies everything I've ever experienced as a Sale fan. From the elation of winning a Premiership final, to the disastrous, injury-ravaged 2006-07 season that followed, to the final season at Edgeley Park and the up-and-down, shifting fortunes Sale have had since uprooting from Stockport and moving to Eccles and the AJ Bell stadium - Cueto has always been there with a Sale shirt on his back.
And although the prospect of seeing Sale take the field once again to begin the 2015-16 season in October is a beacon of excitement in an otherwise barren, rugby-less summer (let's ignore the upcoming Rugby World Cup for a moment), it will be bittersweet not seeing Mark Cueto, a cult figure of Sale Sharks history, not running out with the team.
Mine is a sentiment that I am obviously not alone in holding. One need only look at the outpouring of support, well-wishing and tributes the rugby community sent the way of 'Frank' once official confirmation came that this year would be his last as a rugby player, to see how well-respected and appreciated Cueto was not only by Sale fans, but by English and worldwide rugby as well.
A British and Irish Lion, an England international with 55 caps to his name, a World Cup final try scorer (regardless of what Stuart Dickinson thinks), a Premiership champion, the Premiership's all-time top try scorer with ninety tries to his name and perhaps most impressive of all - a devoted one-club man for the entirety of his fourteen-year career in an era of professionalism where rugby took a more money-focused turn - Cueto's accomplishments are simply that of legend and the services he provided for both Sale Sharks and English rugby are insurmountable. For fourteen years Cueto gave everything he had to the game of rugby and he can look back on a glittering career that will be forever remembered, be it for the dramatics in Paris, the try-scoring exploits or the admirable loyalty he showed to his first club over a decade and a half.
There are very few players in the modern game who truly fit the definition of a legend - either for their club or country - but Mark Cueto, who for so long was a continual presence in mine and so many other Sale fans' rugby lives, has truly earned that status.
Enjoy retirement, Frank.
Earlier this afternoon the draw for the 2015/16 European Champions and Challenge Cup pools took place in Neuchatel, Switzerland.
Whilst there was little in the way of excitement in terms of the actual draw - we know now that Sale Sharks have been drawn with Newport Gwent Dargons, Castres Olympique, and Pau in the Pool Two of the 2015-16 Challenge Cup.
Whilst the draw could have been a lot kinder to Sale - Castres and Pau both have star-studded squads backed by some serious financial power, and Newport are well represented in the Welsh World Cup training squad announced at the start of the month - it is certainly not a catastrophic draw.
Newport are probably the weakest of the four Welsh regional teams currently in operation whilst Pau are the new kids on the block in the Top 14 - they've invested heavily but are at a huge disadvantage in terms of experience of top-flight European rugby with a thoroughly revamped squad (think a better, richer London Welsh). Castres, meanwhile only avoided relegation from the Top 14 last season by the skin of their teeth, surviving on wins totalled alone.
So although at first glance it seems like a pretty tough group for Sale to progress out of - and lets not sugarcoat it, it is - it certainly could have been much tougher for the Sharks as they not only avoided their fellow English teams (although the selection protocols made this inevitable) but other strong favourites Cardiff Blues and Brive.
And although the Challenge Cup may not quite be the attraction to potential supporters that the Champions Cup is, Sale's 2015/16 European campaign will not bereft of star talent that they can market fixtures around. A selection of world-renowned players scheduled to appear at the AJ Bell next season now includes Taupe Faletau (Newport), Colin Slade and Conrad Smith (both Pau), and Sitiveni Sivivatu (Castres). There will also be homecomings for Richie Gray (Castres) and Andy Powell (Newport).
Sale's chances of progression into the latter stages (and this is definitely a competition Sale should be targeting to succeed in as this year's winners gain an automatic spot in the 2016/17 Champions Cup) following this pool draw now revolve around whether they can further strengthen their squad before the Autumn to compete with some impressively built teams and how well their away form holds up in the competition. Sale have the capacity to beat all three of their fellow teams at home, however it will be how well they perform away from the AJ Bell that will eventually determine if they qualify from their group.
Overall, whilst the draw from could have gone both better or worse for Sale, at the very least it should make for some very exciting European rugby next season.
With Saracens' crowing as the 2014/15 Aviva Premiership champions nearly two weeks ago, now seems as apt a time as ever for SharkTankRugby to announce their eagerly awaited (not really) Premiership Team of the Year.
I'll confess to cheating slightly with some of the chosen players being picked in positions that they didn't necessarily play the majority of their minutes at this season as a way to truly incorporate the 15 best players in the English Premiership.
Just missing the cut: Matt Mullan, Tomas Francis, Stuart Hooper, Will Chudley, Mark Wilson, Kyle Eastmond, Christian Wade, Semesa Rokoduguni,
15 - Elliot Daly
We'll start with the most glaring example of position fixing. Although Daly has featured for both England and Wasps in the past as a fullback (which hopefully justifies my inclusion of him at 15), this season the Croydon-born back played nearly all of his minutes in his preferred position of Outside Centre with incredible results. Regardless where he was employed in 2014/15 however, Daly was electric for Wasps. Armed with an outstanding kicking game both from hand and from the tee, acute game awareness, excellent distributive abilities and an eye for a gap and break for himself, Daly was an integral component in the midfield of a deadly and potent Wasps team that lead the league in both tries and points scored. Daly's breakout season was capped with a fully deserved callup to England's wider training squad ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
14 - Alex Lewington
Although London Irish have made more news recently for their high-profile player and coaching recruitment from Super Rugby, it might very well be an under-the-radar move in signing Alex Lewington - a Leicester Tigers castoff - back in the summer of 2013 that makes the most difference in their immediate fortunes. Lewington showed exactly what a coup Irish made in convincing him to move to the MadStad two years ago with a phenomenal year that saw him score 12 times in only 19 games for the Reading-based club. Blessed with game-changing speed and the killer instinct synonymous with all great rugby wingers, Lewington tore the discussion regarding England's wingers for the 2015 World Cup wide open with a number of eye-catching displays this season including an outstanding hat-trick in a narrow losing effort to Saracens to start the season and against our very own Sale Sharks where his brace of tries effectively single-handedly won Irish the game. Lexington also lead the Premiership with the biggest individual percentage of his team's tries scored this year with a huge 26%.
13 - Jonathan Joseph
I am of the opinion that there is little that I can say about Jonathan Joseph to truly capture the earth-shattering season he enjoyed in 2014/15 that has not already been written by writers much more talented than myself. The form player in the world this season, Joseph exploded onto the global scene with the dizzying footwork, pace, and ability to spot and exploit gaps that made him a threat to change a game on a whim every time he stepped onto the field. One half of the solution to England's seemingly perpetual midfield dilemma, Joseph became a star for both club and country this year and his profile will only continue to grow as we head into 2016.
12 - Chris Wyles
As much as I wanted to give this spot to Kyle Eastmond, the continuation of Chris Wyles' fantastic form and try-scoring exploits that saw him play a pivotal role in Saracens' eventual play-off success saw the American just about edge out Eastmond for the No.12 shirt. Although usually a back-three player by trade, injury to Brad Barritt saw Wyles get extensive gametime in lieu of the South-African/Englishman at Inside Centre where he not only coped, but flourished. A creative and clever kicking game complimented a great nose for the tryline for Wyles this season as he racked up 12 scores whilst also proving an airtight defender in Barritt's stead. Not always the most renowned or recognised member of a Saracens backline filled with much 'flashier' players, Wyles' quiet effectiveness won him many accolades this season and his excellent play is one of the reasons Saracens were crowned champions this season.
11 - Sinoti Sinoti
So nice they named him twice - Sinoti Sinoti was nothing short of a revelation in 2014/15 for a Newcastle team which has often struggled to put points on the board since being promoted in 2013. Despite standing only 5ft 9", Sinoti showcased his incredibly destructive and powerful running with the ability to easily shrug of multiple tacklers when racing for the try-line to the tune of 9 tries for Falcons this year, and his blinding speed and deceptive playing style played an important role in helping create opportunities for his fellow backs as Newcastle drastically increased their scoring and attacking output this season. A game-changing talent regardless of your definition of the phrase, Sinoti is someone to keep an eye on at this year's World Cup and beyond as Newcastle continue to adapt their playing style to a much improved 4G pitch.
10 - George Ford
Rounding out the Bath 10-12-13 axis that set European rugby alight this year, George Ford was far and away the best Fly-Half in the Premiership this season. So smart and decisive on the ball, Ford is not only a metronome-like kicker, but also has great hands, a strong burst of pace and can more than hold his own in defence. Not just in the Premiership, Ford was the best all-around number 10 in Europe this season, and took advantage of Owen Farrell's injury problems to make the incumbent England No.10 jersey his own. Look at both of Bath's decimations of Leicester this season to see how just how central he is to all of Bath's incisive attacking play but also look to much closer victories such as the 21-11 win against Saracens to illustrate how Ford is a multi-faceted player, capable of winning for Bath in games with all guns blazing or when a more conservative, managerial and efficient game is needed from him. A deserving recipient of the Premiership Player Of The Season award.
9 - Joe Simpson
Although still grossly underrated by the English international brass, Joe Simpson evolved beyond just a high-risk high-reward player into one of the most consistent and dependable members of Wasps' first team, anchoring the most prolific backline in English rugby, in 2014/15. Electrifyingly quick with a dangerous and unpredictable change of direction in his arsenal, Simpson also displayed improved decision-making, game-management and box-kicking this season for Wasps thoroughly outplaying all of Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Lee Dickson and Richard Wigglesworth over the course of the season, and only a end-of-season injury scuppered his (strong) chances of making it into the England World Cup training squad. He also scored the official try of the season - a wonderful mesmerising run - against Exeter in April.
8 - Thomas Waldrom
Emerging completely out of left field to take home the title of the Premiership's top try scorer this season, Thomas 'The Tank Engine' Waldrom proved to be arguably the best signing of any Premiership team following his barnstorming debut season in Exeter following a move from Leicester Tigers. 16 tries scored (one short of Neil Black's record for tries scored by a forward in a single season) doesn't quite do justice to just how perfect a fit Waldrom turned out to be in Devon as his red-hot carrying and forward play helped lead Exeter to a blistering start to the season and the chance, denied only by Saracens' final round thumping of London Welsh, to make the play-offs for the first time in the club's career. Waldrom has been a revelation for Chiefs this season and is one of many examples of how Rob Baxter and co's astute signings have led an unlikely modern rags-to-riches story for a team that was playing in the Championship as recently as 2010.
7 - Calum Clark
For most players a 'quiet' season on the eve of a World Cup on home turf would be nothing short of a disaster but the opposite has proven to be true for Calum Clark. A player notorious for previous indiscretions, Clark enjoyed arguably the best season of his career for Northampton this year by allowing his ferocious combative ability in winning turnovers at the breakdown and producing airtight defensive and tackling ability to shine through and keeping his misdemeanours to an absolute minimum. A strong ball-carrier to boot in addition to his ideal skill set as a flanker, Clark seems to finally have turned a corner in his career and made good on his immense potential, turning himself into one of Northampton's most important players in 2014/15.
6 - Samu Manoa
As versatile a forward as he is destructive a ball carrier, Samu Manoa cemented his position as one of, if not the, most well-rounded players in the Premiership with another exemplary season in 2014/15. An instrumental figure within the Northampton scrum, line-out and attack, the California native once again proved what a unique but brilliant player he is despite his unorthodox rugby background by putting in huge performances every week for Saints regardless of whether he was asked to play as a Lock, Flanker or No.8. Manoa also formed a devastating partnership with Courtney Lawes that often spearheaded the on-field success Northampton enjoyed as league leaders for much of the season. His imminent departure to Toulon will leave a huge void within the Northampton Saints team that should prove extremely difficult to fill.
5 - Josh Beaumont
A message to everybody associated with rugby - its time to stop namedropping his father with every mention of Josh Beaumont. For this season, Beaumont the younger finally shook of the injuries troubles that saw him miss the entirety of the 2013/14 campaign and begin his astronomical climb to rugby stardom that surely has full England caps in its immediate future. A clear choice for Sale Sharks' player of the season, Beaumont stepped up for a team clearly lacking for dynamism in 2014/15 putting in a number of MOTM performances with powerful, penetrative runs with ball-in-hand, excellent defence and an exceptional running of a previously-stuttering lineout that displayed a wisdom and maturity beyond his twenty-three years. Beaumont is a star in the making, and even though it was mainly at No.8 he excelled for Sale this year, he also proved capable of comfortably sliding into the second row when called upon.
4 - Nick Easter
Another 'second rower' who spent the domestic season playing No.8, Easter showed this season, even at age 36, he still had the versatility and talent to play to the levels of a professional ten years younger than himself. An experienced and well-respected leadership figure in South-West London, Easter remains probably the best ball-playing and passing forward in the game and he delighted spectators and teammates alike this year with a plethora of strong carries and excellent off-loads for Harlequins alongside all the usual duties of a Lock-cum-No.8, even if the team around him often failed to match his high standards. Although I was not as accepting of Stuart Lancaster's decision to recall him to the England setup for the Six Nations as many others were (seriously how do you leave Thomas Waldrom out after Ben Morgan's injury?), Easter's selection was indicative of the strong form he showed for Quins this season and his deserving place upon this list.
3 - Vadim Cobilas
100% a 'homer' pick here, but it takes a season-ticket holding Sale Sharks fan to truly appreciate the impact and importance Vadim Cobilas holds in the fortunes of the North-West's only Premiership club. The fact that Vadim Cobilas was the only natural Tighthead prop with any significant top-flight experience throughout the entire Sale first team this season and as such was often asked to play on average over 70(!) minutes every week for the Sharks is simply unthinkable in a modern age that sees most Premiership clubs carry at least two, if not three, players in every position. Add in the fact that for most of the season Sale were in contention for a top-six place and you truly begin to understand the herculean task the Moldovan thrived under this season.
2 - Jamie George
Jamie George enjoyed a wonderful 2014/15 campaign that saw him not only firmly establish himself as Saracens' first choice Hooker following a season-ending injury to Schalk Brits, but also saw him rapidly clamber up the pecking order for England in a World Cup year. The best Hooker in the Premiership at this moment period, George is the perfect all-around package - as strong a ball-carrier as Dylan Hartley without the discipline issues, as effective in the scrum and breakdown as Tom Youngs without the throwing issues and wholly more consistent week-in, week-out than Bath's Rob Webber. George rose to the occasion massively with every opportunity this season and he is one of the brightest young talents in the entire Premiership as of today. Being named Man of the Match in his sides' victorious Premiership final outing is also worth mentioning.
1 - Marcos Ayerza
At times almost single-handedly anchoring a Leicester Tigers pack that sputtered and lost a measure of its formerly famous power and ferocity this season, Loosehead Prop Marcos Ayerza, like Vadim Cobilas on the other side of this hypothetical scrum, was an ever-present for a Leicester side where his absence served to be almost apocalyptical for the team's fortunes. An individual destruction of the opposing London Irish scrum in a game in Reading back in March serves as Ayerza's most notable highlight but it is his impressive consistency all season for Tigers that has earned him a place on this list. A cult figure amongst the Leicester and Argentinian faithful, Ayerza proved to be one of the brightest spots for a Tigers team that endured its fair share of ups and downs in 2014/15.
Agree or disagree with my picks? Think it seems the same as most other team of the years? Tweet (and follow!) SharkTankRugby for more independent news, analysis and opinions on all things Sale Sharks (and occasionally the Premiership).